The idea that Facebook is responsible for Trump’s victory is yet another folk devil whom we can blame in lieu of truthfully assessing important issues.
In the year 2011, not long after the movie “The Social Network” came out, and with an economy still anemic, I did what many people who graduated into the recession and found that their career progress stalled had done. I decided to try and build a Facebook web app, which I more or less completed in August of 2012.
“I decided to try and build a Facebook web app, which I more or less completed in August of 2012”
It was a very simple idea: Imagine if, in the course of an argument or debate as we now see all the time, there were a way to tabulate the votes – back then only likes – and officially declare a winner, making it a fun game between friends. I even built out additional ‘reacts’, before Facebook integrated such features into the mainstream platform. I also was able to export the conversation and allow for Reddit-style nested commenting, with each comment also subject to an upvote or downvote. People could use the app or come on to my platform. In any case, their contributions would be counted and tabulated, and a ‘winner’ of the debate would be declared after a certain time limit, posted both in the initial user’s thread and on my own platform. Stats on ‘wins’ and what kinds of reacts people gave them could be tracked over time, creating a ranking system of debaters.
It wasn’t a bad idea. But it was also really my first project of such a scale as a developer. It was that first project developers build (badly, sometimes) that gives them their first real education as developers – having to do complex things and solve problems and make terrible mistakes that require fundamental fixes later on. Such is the best education there is for how to write software. After months of work, I had an app that barely worked, that perhaps I could have tried to see in production. But I also had a formative education in development that I’d never forget.
After that, friends began to enlist me to build their own products, and I had quietly launched a new business off the ground. Though I was proud that I was able to build my Facebook app, very soon I saw why it was also embarrassing from an engineering perspective, a fact that a good friend of mine with a far greater degree of proficiency as a software developer politely pointed out. I packed it up, including its database, and put it in a git repository on Bit Bucket, where it sits ‘on ice’ to this day.
In order to use this app, one had to go through a similar process that the now infamous app “This Is Your Digital life” – farmed out to the now more infamous data firm Cambridge Analytica – used. You offer users the app, and in order to use it they have to click through a consent button that clearly states that the app will have access to a whole variety of data.
In my app, like in most, there was no nefarious purpose behind this – I needed the information for people to be able to log in, track what they did, and to store and alter both the original Facebook comment thread and any subsequent Reddit-style nested comments on my own platform. I also needed to incorporate the names and comments of friends engaging in the original debate on Facebook, so as to store them and display on my own system. Such information was easily available to me as a developer through the Graph API. My hope was that this application could offer an experience both to the users who downloaded it but even those who didn’t download it. I was able to publish to the user’s original status with stats and declarations of victory. I loved debating with my friends, and just wanted to turn it into somewhat of a fun game, and for that I needed data.
“In my app, like in most, there was no nefarious purpose behind this – I needed the information for people to be able to log in, track what they did, and to store and alter the original Facebook comment thread along with subsequent comments on my own platform”
Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal hit – a scandal in which the company was accused of illegally breaching Facebook data and using this data to build the manipulative powerhouse that would elevate Donald Trump to the presidency – it occurred to me that even today, I too have data that was collected from users and their friends in the process of building this app. Nothing extraordinary: their names at the time, Facebook IDs, links to pictures, and the old statuses that were submitted to the app for the purposes of tabulating the winner of the debate. There was a whole variety of other data I could have collected; trivially easy to store in my own database. But this data sits on ice in a git repository. If Facebook had expected that all app developers – such as those who created the personality quiz app that was granted similar permissions by users to collect its own data for Cambridge Analytica – were supposed to delete this data when they were finished, then I too am guilty.
People who think the Cambridge Analytica scandal is a kind of ‘data breach’ don’t quite understand how the Facebook API and applications written with it in mind work. There was no ‘breach’. As with all things Facebook, users willingly gave application developers access to their information. Apps like mine, or FarmVille, or Tinder, or anything else that asks for or requires a Facebook login need access to it in order to tailor their experience easily to the user. It is very simple for any user to say no – simply don’t download or use the app. Don’t use social media. Don’t write online. But for years Facebook has made the graph accessible and open and has made no secret of this, much to the delight of most people, as more and more software products came tailored to their needs.
“People who think the Cambridge Analytica scandal is a kind of record ‘data breach’ don’t quite understand how the Facebook API and applications written with it in mind work”
Having not really worked with the Facebook API since 2012, I cannot personally testify to just how the ability to collect data on people’s friends have changed, but Facebook apparently tightened up just how and where app developers could collect this data. Before these restrictions went into place and the rules were tightened, Cambridge Analytica apparently collected data on 87 million users. This is data that Cambridge Analytica – founded by Steve Bannon of Breitbart News and the Trump campaign infamy – used to try and test and hone their messages for the 2016 election, even before the idea of a Donald Trump candidacy was a serious consideration in anybody’s mind.
The revelations of this transaction have dominated international headlines, all but torpedoing Zuckerberg’s flirtations with running for president and culminating with him testifying before Congress this week. Facebook’s stock took a beating, with Zuckerberg himself losing billions go of dollars in value as markets reacted to the news of the ‘breach’ (but rebounding since his successful performance in Congressional testimony).
What’s fascinating about this newly heightened degree of hysteria is that the fact that app developers getting access to your data is nothing new. This very practice was an integral part of the 2012 Obama Campaign data operationmm an operation that received effusive praise at the time for its engagement with big data, with Facebook data being an integral part of this.
In addition, by harnessing the growing power of Facebook and other online sources, the campaign is building what some see as an unprecedented data base to develop highly specific profiles of potential voters. This allows the campaign to tailor messages directly to them — depending on factors such as socio-economic level, age and interests.
The data also allows the campaign to micro-target a range of dollar solicitations online depending on the recipient. In 2008, the campaign was the first to maximize online giving — raising hundreds of millions of dollars from small donors. This time, they are constantly experimenting and testing to expand the donor base.
Reports are that even Facebook was surprised by the extent of the data the Obama campaign was able to access, but did nothing to stop it. Would this current panic have come to life if Hillary Clinton had been elected president instead? Is this really a panic about data security as advertised? It’s especially notable just how much of this noise is coming from concerned Democrats, given that there is every indication that if Facebook data would have been privileged to one candidate over another, it would have been privileged to Hillary Clinton – as leaked Podesta emails show, higher ups at Facebook seemed firmly committed to electing the first woman president.
This is what makes the Cambridge Analytica panic, and the Facebook panic more generally, so amusing with some knowledge of the other side of the equation. It is a panic over things which we have known for years – A) when you install a Facebook app, it gives developers to your data, and B) what is that data useful for? Finding out what you already want – and delivering it to you. As the whistleblower in the Cambridge Analytica scandal said•
“Trump wasn’t in our consciousness at that moment; this was well before he became a thing,” Wylie said. “He wasn’t a client or anything.”
The year before Trump announced his presidential bid, the data firm already had found a high level of alienation among young, white Americans with a conservative bent.
In focus groups arranged to test messages for the 2014 midterms, these voters responded to calls for building a new wall to block the entry of illegal immigrants, to reforms intended to “drain the swamp” of Washington’s entrenched political community and to thinly veiled forms of racism toward African Americans called “race realism,” he recounted…
“The only foreign thing we tested was Putin,” he said. “It turns out, there’s a lot of Americans who really like this idea of a really strong authoritarian leader and people were quite defensive in focus groups of Putin’s invasion of Crimea.”
There is valid criticism insofar as that the Obama campaign collected data using their own app created for those explicit purposes, whereas “This Is Your Digital Life” claimed to only be using the data for academic purposes. Insofar as this went unanswered and users un-notified, Facebook rightfully deserves criticism and reform.
But given that this took place, the supposed damage that resulted from this too is vastly overestimated. What did Cambridge Analytica do with the data they received? They used it to test out what slogans and issues might be salient with voters, years before even the faintest idea of a Trump candidacy was in anybody’s mind. Trump seemingly came upon similar themes without their aid. We forget that at the start of the election cycle, Cambridge Analytica was working for Ted Cruz, who did not seem to gain any advantage by using them. Even after being hired by the Trump Campaign, by late September or early October of 2016 the Trump campaign had decided instead to use RNC data instead, which they found to be vastly more accurate.
It is abundantly clear that the panic over Facebook is really a panic about Donald Trump. It’s certainly understandable why many are upset about the fact that Trump was able to win this election seemingly against all odds, but the extent to which Facebook made this possible is only the extent to which it also made possible the victories of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, at which time hardly a peep of protest was offered.
Facebook assaults both components of this power dynamic, providing the platform and audience that only news-media outlets could once command, and the organizing power that only parties once held. As then-Senator Obama understood well in 2008, the internet provides political candidates a previously unimaginable opportunity to identify, communicate with, and organize supporters — an opportunity that, significantly, exists outside the traditional party apparatus. Trump, like Obama before him, was able to connect with voters outside the more stifling confines of political-party organizing.
We should note as well that Obama’s use of data and his subsequent victory too were against perhaps one of the biggest onslaughts of fake news regarding a presidential candidate in modern times – the racially-tinged ‘birther’ conspiracy, alleging that Barack Obama wasn’t born an American citizen, along with allegations that he could secretly be a Muslim.
And despite the dystopian narrative that Trump’s victory was only thanks to Facebook’s ability to uniquely hack our minds and manipulate the country into supporting this candidate with onsloughts of fake news aided and abetted by Russian hackers, the hard thing for many Democrats to accept is that social media isn’t, in fact, quite as far reaching as they think. According to a Stanford University Study conducted just after the election, “only 14 percent say they relied on Facebook and other social media sites as their most important source of election coverage.” And given just how extensive this distribution channel actually was, for fake news to have still swung the election, fake news would have to be some of the most potent information ever distributed: ““For fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake news story would need to have convinced about 0.7 percent of Clinton voters and non-voters who saw it to shift their votes to Trump, a persuasion rate equivalent to seeing 36 television campaign ads.”
“Despite the dystopian narrative that Trump’s victory was only thanks to Facebook’s ability to uniquely hack our minds and manipulate the country into supporting this candidate with onsloughts of fake news aided and abetted by Russian hackers, the hard thing for many Democrats to accept is that social media isn’t, in fact, quite as far reaching as they feared”
This is not to doubt that social media isn’t powerful. And arguably, as older generations pass away or convert to the new medium over time, this power might in fact manifest in a way more similar to that which is currently only alleged. But as of now, Democrats should still be more worried about Fox News than Russian-run Facebook pages – though the steps Facebook is taking to ensure that administrators of large pages are verified is a good one regardless.
Again, I think back to the data that is still sitting on a git repository that I haven’t touched in years. I imagine to myself – suppose my idea had taken off? What could I have done with this data now? It’s certainly true that Facebook itself is employing huge teams of people to study what people do on and off its site, but there are thousands of app developers like me or just a bit more sophisticated than me. What could I do with these stored conversations and how they were ranked? Beyond perhaps finding out the political persuasion of some of my users, and perhaps tailoring certain things to them, I’m at a loss as to how this could serve an agenda of world domination.
Given what both the Obama and Trump campaigns did with Facebook data, and given that the ‘stolen’ data turned out to be less useful than data collected by the RNC (which no one is howling about), this circus feels more and more like a tale full of sound and fury – perhaps not signifying nothing, but not signifying the sinister conspiracy Democrats are hoping for.
Zuckerberg’s testimony before congress seemed to reflect that the panic over Facebook largely reflected a profound ignorance over the technology itself. As Slate declared, “The Senate Fought Mark Zuckerberg, and Mark Zuckerberg Won”. Many monologues of panic over user data by Senators and Congressmen and women ended with our elected representatives demanding privacy options for users that in many cases already existed, or for changes that Facebook had already enacted since. In other cases, it reflected the fact that the body poised to regulate the world’s biggest social network – a move that might not be bad in principle – hardly understood the technology it was poised to regulate.
Facebook instead feels more and more like yet another convenient excuse for our political failures. Was it really Facebook and Cambridge Analytica that that drove Democrats to defeat in November? Or was it a Democratic party so fervently shackled to a gospel of intersectionality and identity politics that it willfully refused to acknowledge that it indeed has a white working class problem? Was it really Russian-engineered fake news going to far fewer voters than TV-viewers that did this, or was it the running of a candidate that was completely tone-deaf on issues that mattered to a key demographic – a tone-deafness that she has continued to double down on since the election ended? Moreover, how is it possible that this unique confluence of Russian fake news and Cambridge Analytica data helped elect a candidate that seems much more similar to leaders being elected in a trend worldwide, from Orban in Hungary to Modi in India to Duertete in the Phillipines?
“Facebook instead feels more and more like yet another convenient excuse for our political failures. Was it really Facebook and Cambridge Analytica that that drove Democrats to defeat in November?”
The problem isn’t Facebook. It’s us. Like the way that many Trump supporters think Mexicans and Muslims are to blame for their problems, this is mere scapegoating. And hitting this scapegoat is going to have the same effect on solving the problem that all scapegoating does – none.
All that Cambridge Analytica did with the data they collected is literally what every marketing firm does with Facebook every day – use the data to figure out what we want so they can deliver more of it to us.
This idea that Facebook is responsible for Trump’s victory seems like yet another folk devil on whom we can easily blame all our problems and relieve ourselves of the responsibility for introspection on just how we may have been wrong in approaching important political issues and our fellow Americans. If this “data breach” only helped Steve Bannon figure out what we wanted, then neither he nor Facebook are to blame.
You know who is? Us.
Facebook isn’t the problem. It’s you. Facebook is only a heightened reflection of who we are, insofar as we are willing to share that. Nobody hacked our brains, all that happened was someone used technology to hold up a mirror to them.
“Nobody hacked our brains, all that happened was someone used technology to hold up a mirror to them”
This is certainly not to say Facebook isn’t yet another company with profit interests at the core of its concern. Nor is to say that there are a whole host of other reasons why limiting our time and exposure to social media are still good ideas. And it is self evident that living in a digital environment tailored to your needs all the time can most certainly siphon people off into echo chambers, and it is entirely possible that this effect – not the ‘hacking’ our data or fake news – could be having a deleterious effect on our politics, insofar as increased numbers of voters are really living in this environment.
But if you want to really fix the problem of our politics, closing off social media networks is not going to accomplish this. We are going to have to challenge our core epistemologies instead – much harder, much more grueling work, and without nearly as much ease and relief as it is to heap scorn upon a digital scapegoat.